The Original Robin Hood
Popular culture might portray Robin Hood as an outlawed nobleman, usually a disinherited Earl of Huntingdon or a Saxon knight, but this wasn’t always the case. In the earliest versions of the Robin Hood story, the outlaw is explicitly described as a yeoman, a term of several variations all of which denote a person of common status: lower than a squire, yet higher than a page. Nor is Robin Hood described as a Saxon. If we go by the early tales alone, he was not an enemy of Prince John, an ally of Richard I, or even, recorded as living during that period.
When considering the origin of the Robin Hood legend, nothing is more important than the ballads. In total, thirty-eight of these exist, generally dated between the 15th and 18th centuries. All provide an entertaining insight into the activities of the outlaw. While the later ballads are products of popular culture, the events of the earliest five may hold important clues to any possible identity. The ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, in particular, provides a reasonable overview of his life as an outlaw. The Gest is perhaps the earliest of the surviving ballads, dated sometime between 1400-1520, around the same time as the ballads of Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and Robin Hood’s Death.
The early ballads each paint a similar picture. Robin Hood is an outlaw of yeoman status, who is active in both Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire and Barnsdale Forest in Yorkshire. He already has the company of his Merry Men, including Little John, Will Scarlock and Much the Millers son, but there is no sign of Friar Tuck or Maid Marian. A rivalry with the Sheriff of Nottingham is evident from the start, yet with no indication why Robin Hood was outlawed. Robin is already celebrated as a formidable opponent, the most outstanding of archers, a fair leader. Although he does not specifically ‘rob from the rich to give to the poor’, the Gest ballad, in particular, illustrates his tendency to separate the corrupt from the honest when it comes to stealing their money, and his generosity in helping those in need.
Similarities between the Robin Hood of legend and the yeoman outlaw of the ballads exist, but a time for the original outlaw is unfortunately not given. In the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk, Little John cleverly outsmarts the king with false papers when attempting to free Robin from jail, yet the king on this occasion is unnamed. A king, however, is named in the Gest: but he was not Richard the Lionheart, he was an Edward.